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Jan. 26, 2014

The incredible beauty of the "Secrets of the Universe"

by Zoe Johnson, Online Editor-in-Chief
"Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe," by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, is one of the most absorbingly relatable and exquisite books I have ever had the pleasure to read. The sparse, poetic prose captures the confusion and longing of growing up and the transformative power of friendship, touching on issues of race, shame, love and family at the same time.

Aristotle (who goes by Ari) and Dante are two young Mexican-American boys growing up in El Paso, TX in the 1980s who are desperately trying to figure out their identities and where they fit in the world. They become friends despite their differences—Ari is indifferent and resentful, whereas Dante is full of awe and emotions—and are soon inseparable. Ari, the narrator, is constantly confronted with his parents' silence: his father refuses to talk about his experiences in the Vietnam War, which still haunts him, and neither of his parents will mention Ari's older brother, who is in prison. With Dante's help, however, Ari begins to learn about the world and its many wonders. To them, growing up is a process of 'discovering the secrets of the universe'—certainly the best description of adolescence I've heard.

One of the major themes of the book is the process of learning to be open about emotions, something everyone in Ari's family struggles with. As Ari's mother says, "We all fight our own private wars." The real beauty of the book comes through with the ending. I won't spoil it for you, but the message is simple: love—familial, romantic, platonic or otherwise—should be open and free.

Despite all these lofty phrases and ideas, though, the book is not at all dramatic, in the typical way of young-adult books. The writing is almost deceptively blunt, almost minimalistic, and Ari is an exceptionally accessible narrator. You may have to stop every now and again to think through what you've read, but other than that, it's a quick read just by virtue of being so straightforward.

"Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe" clicks so perfectly with the wondering and yearning of youth that it should be required reading in all high-schools. Books like this give me hope for the young-adult genre, which is generally dominated by futuristic dystopian apocalyptic novels or straight-up fluffy romance. Thank you, Mr. Sáenz.



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